Buying an ink jet printer has never been easier --or harder. It's easier than ever because there are so many good printers on the market. And it's harder because there are so many good printers to choose from.
Browse the shelves of two or three retailers and you'll find dozens of different models from Hewlett Packard, Epson, Lexmark and Canon, many of which seem almost identical.
Part of this is marketing -- by making a variety of slightly different models, printer makers protect retailers from competing on price for identical machines. The consumer electronics industry has done this for years with stereos, TVs and VCRs.
But clear differentiations exist between classes of printers, which range in price from $70 to $100 on the low end to $500 or so at the top of the scale.
You can scale back the confusion by deciding in advance how much printer you need --and why you need it. If you're limited to occasional correspondence and the kids' school reports, a low-cost, general purpose ink jet will do just fine. For office use, you'll do better with a higher-speed, mid-priced printer for business-quality correspondence and graphics. Serious digital camera buffs should look for a machine optimized for photo-quality printing.
Most stores have displays that allow you to print test pages using a variety of printers, a good way to get a quick picture of a machine's capabilities. But realize that these display models --and the images they produce --are optimized to make them look good. And be sure you're comparing apples and apples by checking to see that they're all using the same paper. If in doubt, bring your own along. Once you've done that, check the specs carefully. Here are factors to consider:
Resolution: We discussed this in some depth last week, but the basics bear repeating here. Resolution refers to the number of dots that a printer lays down per horizontal or vertical inch of paper (for example, 1,440 dpi horizontally by 720 dpi vertically). Higher-resolution printers theoretically produce more detailed images with more lifelike colors than lower-resolution printers. But resolution doesn't tell the whole tale; some printers are just better at photos while others are better at text and graphics. That's why it pays to check samples.
Speed: After resolution, the most important factor for many buyers is speed. More money buys a faster printer, which is important if you frequently churn out long documents.
Printer speed is measured in pages per minute. While laser printers usually come close to their manufacturers' claims, ink jet ratings are squishy at best because the speed depends on the type of document. A double-spaced page of text will print much faster than a single-spaced page mixed with graphics, and a high-resolution photo will slow any printer to a crawl. For this reason, manufacturers usually display two speeds on their spec sheets, one for text and one for graphics.
Be careful here. Manufacturers often rate text speed in the printer's "normal" or "draft" mode, which uses less ink and is fine for proofing and correcting, but not always good enough for business correspondence. The Lexmark Z51 I use at home turned out the first page of this column (single-spaced) in 15 seconds in draft mode, compared with 85 seconds at the printer's highest resolution of 1,200 dots per inch.
Duty cycle: This is the number of pages per month a printer can produce without self-destructing. It ranges from a few hundred pages to thousands. Overwork your printer and it will eventually break down --always at the worst possible moment. For casual home and school use, duty cycle isn't important, but if you're in a busy office --or you're printing multiple drafts of the Great American Novel --spend a few dollars more for a heavier-duty machine.
Ink consumption: Gillette came up with the idea a century ago --sell the razors cheap and they'll buy your blades forever. Printer manufacturers have taken this to heart.
In fact, the reason you can buy a decent ink jet for $100 is that you'll be buying $30 ink cartridges for life, particularly if your kids turn out party invitations, greeting cards, buttons, calendars and other projects (thanks to the seductively cute arts-and-crafts software that manufacturers bundle with their printers).
To be fair, ink consumption has improved over the past few years. But the cartridges are still expensive, which means an ink jet typically costs at least a nickel a sheet to operate, about twice the cost with a laser printer. High-quality color work can raise the cost by a factor of 10.
If you print an occasional letter or Web page, this won't matter, but heavy users should consider both the capacity and type of cartridges a printer uses.
As a rule, low-end printers cost more to operate because their cartridges are smaller and require more frequent replacement. Avoid the cheapest, single-cartridge printers, which combine cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink reservoirs in one cartridge. If you run out of black ink first (which is likely if you print text most of the time), you'll have to replace the whole thing.
Consumer-grade printers generally have one cartridge for black and another for colored ink, which is an improvement, but if you run out of blue first, you'll still have to replace the entire color cartridge. Canon's newest printers are an exception to this rule, with a separate cartridge for each color. If you do a lot of color work, this arrangement can save money over the long run.
While most ink jets do a remarkable job of printing photos, some require a separate photo cartridge (with additional shades of cyan and magenta) for top quality. This is an additional expense and requires more careful management on your part. If you like the quality of the output (and this is totally subjective), it may be worth juggling cartridges -- just realize what you're getting into.
If you don't need color on a regular basis, look for a printer that can handle a high-capacity black cartridge. This can bring the cost of running an ink jet close to that of a laser printer.
Manufacturers estimate cartridge life in pages of text and graphics, but these numbers are even more suspect than speed ratings. In its 1999 printer ratings roundup, PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com) tested the cartridge capacity of 28 printers with a mixed page of black text and color graphics. It found a substantial variation -- some ran out of at least one color after as few as 40 pages, while others lasted for 400 pages or more. But the findings support the argument that heavy users can save money with a more expensive printer that uses higher-capacity ink cartridges.
PC Connection: For almost two decades, most printers were designed to connect to a PC's parallel port. Today, you'll find just as many printers that hook up to the Universal Serial Bus port, which is now standard on PCs and Macintosh computers. Some printers have both connectors. Make sure the printer you buy matches your computer.
If you're a Mac owner looking for a USB printer, check the specifications carefully and make sure the package includes Macintosh driver software. Not all USB printers support the Mac.
Whatever printer you buy, make sure you get the right cable. Many manufacturers don't include them. If you replace a parallel port printer with a new one, you may need a new, bidirectional cable.
Paper handling: If you frequently produce multi-page documents, look for a printer with a feed tray that can hold at least 100 sheets. While printing envelopes is always a chore, some printers have slots or manual-feed trays that allow you to do it without removing the paper. You'll appreciate this if you write a lot of letters.
Photo extras: Most manufacturers designate one or two models as "photo" printers. While they're usually fine for text, too, they're optimized for photography. Among the features to look for are a separate feed for snapshot-sized paper and slots that allow you to insert memory cards from digital cameras. With these, you can print photos directly without going through your computer.
HP's new top-of-the line models come with infrared ports that allow you to "beam" photos directly to the printer from compatible cameras. Overkill, maybe, but clever, particularly for folks who just want quick prints.